The Full Story
As written for E Clampus Vitus
‘the washoe house story’
Written for E Clampus Vitus’ Petaluma Pilgrimage April 12-13, 1958
The washoe house is old…
The Washoe House is old. It is being honored today with a plaque by Yerba Buena Chapter of E Clampus Vitus. But not because it is merely ancient. Longevity in itself is not a virtue —even a carp can live for 99 years. Virtue lies in what is made of a long life, and considering its usefulness as a have and oasis down through the years, the pioneer hostelry deserves recognition as it approaches the century mark.
How this former stage stop and still-operating “watering hole” cam to bear a name connected with the Nevada mines is not known for sure. Robert Ayres erected the building in 1859, but the story is that he was the carpenter and acquired possession a few weeks or months later. As one Augustus J. Bowie was the previous deed owner, he may have been the one who placed the rather strange name on the farming land of Sonoma County.
In any event, the Washoe House is the type of place E Clampus Vitus likes to hung out and honor as interest in the state’s past grows. The by-paths of western history become more important as travel on the main highways of Californiana become gratifyingly congested.
Clamper Ralph Cross in his definitive “The Early Inns of California” pointed out that by 1859, the “middle period,” there were thousands of roadside hostelries. he said that concerning the few that have survived much of what has been written about them is “often colored by wishful thinking, if not by downright imagination.” Although this is true to some degree of the landmark standing at the corner of Stony Point and Roblar Roads about seven miles northwest of Petaluma, it need not be; the place is colorful enough without embellishment.
A description of the Washoe House, written by the late Catherine E. Rodd-Olberg of the Petaluma Argus-Courier, will be reprinted here for readers with general interest in the subject. First, however, is some background for Clamper-historians who like to keep such information on file and who will keep their eyes open for additional facts.
In 1877 short, identical accounts appeared in two publications known to such members of our ancient and honorable society as Bookmen Harold Holmes, Warren Howell, David Magee, Max Hunley and Glen Dawson. Author was Robert A. Thompson, Sonoma County’s first prominent historian. The books were the “Historical Atlas Map of Sonoma County” by Thos. H. Thompson, Oakland and the “Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County” published by L. H. Everts, Philadelphia.
When B. F. Alley and M. N. Bowen printed their Sonoma history in 1880, Editor J. P. Monro-Fraser expanded the Robert information as follows:
“ Stony Point—This hamlet is sometimes known by the name of Washoe, so called after the hotel of that name, Stony Point proper being a short distance therefrom. A postoffice was formerly established on the road from Macedonia church to Bloomfield, while the Stony Point House was situated on the farm of P. N. Woodworth, who settled there in 1851. The hotel has, of late, been discontinued, its business, as well as that of the postoffice, having been transferred to the Washoe House, which is still called by the first name.
“At the Washoe House, which is on one of the roads leading from Petaluma to Bloomfield, as it is also on the west road leading to Santa Rosa, is a hotel, which was built in the year 1859 by Robert Ayres, who kept it for five years, when it was purchased by Isaac Baker, who conducted it for twelve months, and disposed of it to Ayers, who ran it for a like period, and parted with it to Mr. Misner, who, after three years, sold it Alfred Rickett, when, after four years, it was purchased, on April 12, 1878, by S. F. Lewis, its present proprieter.
“This was the first and only hostelry ever built in the place. There is also located here a store, carriage manufactory, and the postoffice conducted by Halley (sic) & Magoon, and a butcher’s shop owned by A. Hasbrouck. A daily stage connecting with Petalumaand Valley Ford passes through the village.”
No trace of the Stony Point House remains. It was located on the present farm of A. J. Petersen on Petersen Road, north of the stone quarry from which the area got its name. There is further material, incluing a picture, of this first social center in case anyone is interested.
“Kitty” Rodd-Olberg’s story for the Argus-Courier was written in March, 1949 and was finally located in a roundabout way through the help fo Clamper George Ross of the Oakland Tribune and the paper’s Knave section, which ran a condensed version of th feature. Here, in part, is the Petaluma reporter’s account:
“The sold the old Washoe House on Washoe Corners Friday morning in the superior court at an administrator’s sale, together with the antique furnishings that have long been a part of the historic building. There were several bidders for the rambling structure and it went to the highest, Hans Andresen of Andressen’s tavern on Western avenue, this city.
“With the 13-room, two-story frame structure, Andresen also bout the barroom furnishings, and many antiques that are years and years old. . . .
“In the second story of the Washoe House is a large dance hall, the floor being in perfect condition. Still on the walls are the old fashioned brackets holding lamps and reflectors placed there in the long ago for the younger group of another generation who gathered weekly to enjoy dancing to music furnished by a piano also equipped with old fashioned lamps and reflectors, still in place. Young people from miles away danced in the historic building and many romances budded within the walls of the quaint old house. The narrow stairway leading to the hall is still in use.
“The hall was also used as a meeting place for special evens in the early sixties. Many of the older residents recall the early day social gatherings that were held there and the dances, as they went back over the yesterdays of other years.
“Life was still on pioneer lines when the Washoe House was erected in 1859, just 90 years ago. On the old brick chimney the date inscribed is still plainly seen.
“Going back into years the caretaker, a Mr. Burns, recalled some of the history of the building which was erected by a resident of Illinois who, like other pioneers, turned his attention to the west and the new country. He was impressed with a building where he stopped, called the Washoe House in Washoe county, Nevada. It was an Indian name and he bestowed it on the California Washoe House. Some time after the completion of the structure he returned east and never came back, so the story goes.
“What a story the old house could tell of the days that have passed. It was a stopping place for the stages in early days when miners and other travelers found warmth and supplies for their money. Tramping up the old stairway with their high boots, they sometimes paid with gold dust they brought in from the mines for their keep.
“Traveling road shows often made their quarters at the house and in the hall here are still some of those high boots, high tile hats and other quaint clothes that perhaps were left there by men who never returned.
“Standing today at Washoe Corners, the forking point of the Petaluma, Bloomfield, and Sebastopol roads, south of Stony Point, the Washoe House is still a quaint picture with its many windows and its old fashioned porches at the entrance. Part of the past of the county, it rests on a solid rock foundation. The big earthquake in 1906 gave it a jolt but the damage was not heavy. Lumber used in the landmark was brought down from the redwoods and it was put together with handmade square nails and pegs, old timers recalled.
“When it was known that the place was to be sold connoisseurs sought the furniture and relics but they were not for sale until the building wend. Public Administrator Vernon Silvershield who handled the sale of the property owned by the late William Austin Wilson, said the antique seekers came from many distant points. . . .
“Among the many proprietors of the Washoe House were Fred Kruse who operated it for years and A. Rickett.
“With the death of Wilson the Washoe House closed its doors for the first time since it was build when laughter and song echoed through the building saturated with memories in the days when people enjoyed old fashioned pastimes, when gold was freely spent and the west was in its formative years.”
Robert Ayres moved to Venture from Sonoma County. He acquired both city and ranch property and his state was valued at $100,000. Obituaries mentions he build the Washoe House, and the Santa Rosa Democrat said “it was one of the best known hostelries in Northern California.”
What Nevada inn the original Sonoma owner may have seen is not known. Ralph Cross knows of none, though he points out it would be logical that the county bearing the name might have had one in the early days. The Thompson & West History of Nevada State reissued recently by Howell and North has no mention of a Washoe House or hotel.
Local legend has it that Ulysses S. Grant spoke from the balcony fo the Washoe House, a fact that doesn’t check out. It is true he was asked to attend the Petaluma agricultural fair in the fall of 1879 when he arrived in San Francisco after a two-year around the world trip. A search through both Petaluma and Santa Rosa newspaper files gave no hint that he accepted the invitation.
The Petaluma Argus, a Republican organ, was most serious about General Grant’s arrival on the west coast and his hoped-for-visit to the city. But the opposition Courier under Editor W. F. Shattuck, a Democrat, had this to say:
“. . . Should General Grant come to Petaluma, and we trust he will, we will extend to him the freedom of our city, which will give him the right to go where he pleases, and with or without a company of pretty girls as a committee of safety. He can see everything that is to be seen, kiss the girls as often as he likes, play pedro, shake for the drinks when dry (any of us will shake him and the oftener he shakes the better it will please us) and if he gets beaten pay for them like any other good citizen would do under the same circumstances. In fact, we will try to make him feel at home and as free from restraint as a boy who has just pulled off his store clothes and put on his every day toggery. Come on General and bring Mrs. Grant and the little ones, and we will endeavor to make you feel like you were back in Galena with your old neighbors.”
Since neither the Argus nor the Courier nor the Santa Rosa paper mentioned the ex-president further it is evident he didn’t come to Petaluma — or the Washoe House.
Plenty of other military men hav trod the area. Juan Padilla, the ill-fated Mexican captain and outpost commander for Gen. M. G. Vallejo, was given the land grant on which the Washoe House stands in 1844. Padilla was blamed along with Three-Fingered Jack Garcia for killing two Bear Flag men, so the name of this grant, the Rancho de la Miseria, proved prophetic. The name derivation of “ranch of the oak of misery” is a subject for romantic speculation. Possibly a hanging or other tragedy or maybe even a gloomy mass of Spanish moss dangling from a certain oak tree caused the interesting nomenclature. No one seems to know for sure.
General Vallejo’s part in the Rancho de la Miseria is not recorded in books on his life. R. C. Gambini of the Sonoma County Land Title Co. found a notation that the Washoe House property was deeded by Vallejo to an Albert M. Van Nostrand in 1850. A look at the deed in the Santa Rosa county courthouse shows Padilla gave his title to the Sonoma comander and General John B. Frisbie in March of 1850. In April Vallejo stepped out, deeding the four leagues of land to Daniel Wright, Edwin Hull, Edward E. Dunbar, Hardin Bigelow, Francis Salmon, John E. Ellis, R. M. Price, Van Nostrand, Johann A. F. Hyermann and Frisbie, who kept a portion.
Amount of the transaction was $24,000 and it would be interesting to know what the deal was between Padilla, Vallejo and Frisbie, since the former had been driven from Northern California by the Bear Flag affair. Incidentally, the despite the abuse heaped on the unfortunate Padilla, there is a minority opinion that he was not to blame for the killings and certainly not the torture of the two Bear Flaggers in 1846.
An added footnote contained in a title abstract belonging to Clamper Ed Fratini shows that Juan Padilla sold a quitclaim deed to the rancho’s four leagues in 1860 for $1000, when he was living near Los Angeles. But this is material for a “Philadelphia lawyer",” not a hasty brochure on the Washoe House.
The haste and space involved in this pamphlet precludes adequate research into the important transportation aspect of th Stony Point hostelry. Local history books carry little information about stage line activities in Sonoma County.
Santa Rosa’s name on the plaque bing placed here today may puzzle some, but early newspaper advertisements mention the Washoe House as the halfway point between Petaluma and the Rose City. In the 1880’s the Stony Point Road still is referred to as the west highway to Santa Rosa.
Stage lines that used to pass the present-day Tony Andresen establishment are connected in the memories of old timers with the Bodega run and with short hauls between Stony Point and Bloomfield or Tomales.
Of all the stage drivers connected with the region, the name of George Washington Gilham is the best remembered. it is a shame Robert Louis Stevenson never happened by to immortalize him like the famous author did for Clark Foss of the St. Helena area. In a way the attempt may have been made by a newspaperman later turned county historian known as Tom Gregory, who wrote a beautiful eulogy on Gilham’s death that makes it appear as if the deceased died while at the reins of his horses near Bloomfield.
“The old stage-driver came quietly into town just as he had done off and on for some fourteen years,” Gregory wrote. “But this time he came slower than usual. He had a new team, but the horses tramped solemnly along as if they knew that pace suited the occasion—or knew that something was amiss with the solemn man behind them.
“The old driver had a strange look on his face that we had never seen before—the look of one who is moving deeply in a mystic spell. He always was rather quiet, but now his silence was almost appalling. When the team stopped his old friends anxiously gathered around him, but he did not seem to know them, for he spoke not a word. One grapsed his hand, but no pressure was returned. . . .”
At least two books have copied this description, saying that the dead man was in the driver’s seat holding the reins. The present writers have always been a trifle uneasy about the touching scene, and a search through Petaluma news files showed that Gilham actually died at Howard Station (Occidental) of pneumonia. Gregory’s story really describes the bringin of the body to Bloomfield for burial.
H. C. McCaughey of Bodega recalls the more practical side of old-time staging and thinks he may have ridden with the unjocular jehu.
“Gilham was on the job for 14 years,” McCaughey relates, “and he wouldn’t do anything else regardless of the low pay, dus and mud, chuck holes, not to mention floods and washed out bridges. Very poor roads in those days.
“As to the Washoe House itself I had one personal experience there I recall in the early days. When I was young my mother took me to Petaluma past the hotel and we made the passage aboard the old stage. I believe “Wash” was the driver but if it was he must have died shortly afterwards. I remember more about the dust and heat and bumps in the four-hour trip, via the two-horse spring wagon with the canvas top, a truly rugged experience.”
Mr. McCaughey is the type of regional historian a Clamper should know if he wants to delve into North Bay research. Among others are Charles Seibel and Jack Cavanagh of Petaluma. A. B. Dickinson of Tomales, Rose Gaffney of Bodega Bay, W. S. Borba of Sebastopol, Mary Ellen Lester of Novato and Florence Donnellly of San Rafael. In Sonoma valuable assistance can be rendered by numerous amateur and professional historians including Celeste G. Murphy, Madia D. Brown, F. A. Bridewell and Arthur Weller. A growing source of historical talent is being trained at the Santa Rosa Junior College under the direction of Jean Whitney.
Although it seems to be well established that the Washoe House was erected in 1859, the first advertisement for the establishment appeared in the Sonoma County Journal July 13, 1860, reading:
“Washoe House—The attention of the public is called to the above Hotel, located at Ayre’s Corner, 7 miles from Petaluma, and on the Bodega and Santa Rosa road, where all reasonable demands for man and beast will be satisfied. Connected with the house is a fine commodious Hall, for the accommodation of public or private parties.”
One of the symbols of E Clampus Vitus is the gold miner’s donkey. All reasonable demands for that beast and man are being taken care of today, nearly a century later, as the pioneer hostelry has another party.
—By Ed and Chris Mannion